Alexandria Museum of Art: Partners in Activism

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Partners in Activism features two-dimensional art by Aaron Douglas juxtaposed with written excerpts from the literary works of Arna Bontemps. Both of these creative men were part of the “Harlem Renaissance,” a period of artistic effervescence centered in the African-American enclave of Harlem in New York City during the 20’s. Many of these and other individuals had left the restrictive environments of the Old South to go to the relative freedom in the Northeast. While their New York experience may have defined them, many, such as both Aaron Douglas and Arna Bontemps, eventually returned to the South, in their cases to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.


Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899 and moved to New York City in 1924. In the 30’s, he joined Fisk University as an Assistant Professor of Art and died at the age of 1979 at 70 years of age. Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, which he left at 3 years of age to move with his family to Los Angeles. He attended the Pacific Union College in California and subsequently moved to New York City. He eventually moved to Huntsville, Alabama, back to California, and finally to Fisk University in Tennessee where he retired as a librarian and died in 1973 at the age of 1971. He was a prolific writer of stories, essays and commentaries.


While not revolutionary or groundbreaking, the art of Douglas shows great technical ability. Themes of the black experience occur over and over in paintings, woodcuts and illustrations. Sometimes Bontemps’s quotations have an obvious association with the graphic work, such as in the sower of seeds, “I scattered seed enough to plant the land in rows from Canada to Mexico, but for my reaping only what the hand can hold is all that I can show.” (Arna Bontemps, “A Black Man Talks of Reaping.”) Other times the association is more tenuous, but always interesting.


Throughout the exhibit, there is an exploration of the long-standing social injustice faced by African-Americans for which these two men were acutely aware and only too ready to document. With the current “Black Lives Matter” movement, the exhibit takes on a special relevance and poignancy, since it shows how much things have changed and how much they have remained the same. This exhibit deserves to be pondered, especially by those in our Southern town where the ghosts of past injustices hang over the land, sometimes being accepted as inevitable or even desirable manifestations of a glorious past.


Take the time to see what these men created, especially since Arna Bontemps was born, although not raised, in this city. He commented that in Harlem the sights, sounds and smells of a Louisiana in which he no longer lived, still surrounded him through his friends, neighbors and family on a daily basis.


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David J. Holcombe, M.D., M.S.A.


Holcombe_13Dr. David Holcombe has demonstrated a life-long interest in the arts.  Starting with art courses at U.C. Davis during the turbulent 70’s, he continued painting and writing for the next five decades.  His works have been accepted in many local, regional and state juried shows and are found in collections all over the world.


David is one of TicketCentral’s volunteer bloggers for the 2015-16 season.